The logline on Italian arthouse cinema writer-director Lina Wertmüller’s mark on her medium is that she was the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. She was alone in the designation from 1977 to 1994, when Jane Campion was up for The Piano. But to frame the honor solely in terms of identity flattens the achievement of getting such a multivalent, challenging, and utterly, absurdly surreal film to be accepted by the establishment. 1975’s Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties was its U.S. release title) follows an Italian World War II soldier who flees the army, is captured by Germany, and placed in a concentration camp where his torture is depicted in harrowing and bleak detail. It also features a scene in which a corpse’s incessant farting distracts its protagonist from dismembering it. Gallows humor gained a few more planks the day Wertmüller committed to film. It is a movie that, in the words of New York magazine critic John Simon, “makes nonsense of the very need for classification.”
It had that much in common with its creator, who refused to be pigeonholed. “We are directors, not female directors. It doesn’t make sense to me to mark differences between men and women filmmakers. The question is to make good movies,” she told Lenny Letter in 2017. In the 2015 documentary about her life and work, Behind the White Glasses, Wertmüller described the competing sensibilities that made her movies so intoxicating in their ability to remain beguiling, scene for scene: “I found within myself two facets, two souls that coexist: the lighthearted one that was associated with musical comedies, and the socially-conscious one that was associated with musical theater. These two souls are at the core of my nature.”
The harsh and verbose films of Wertmüller’s imperial phase—generally agreed to run from 1972’s Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore (The Seduction of Mimi) to 1975’s Pasqualino Settebellezze—could have only happened in the ’70s. It was a time that respected furious individualism and obtuse musing that could be informed and highly literate without resorting to didacticism. Wertmüller’s characters—small-time mobsters, sex workers, self-styled revolutionaries, bourgeois tyrants—embodied the idea that the political was personal while rarely serving as role models. Wertmüller, who is alive today at 92 and hasn’t made a movie since 2004’s Too Much Romance... It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers, was more interested in politics as they were practiced than she was in venerating them. Her movies frequently portrayed ideals failing people and people failing their ideals. She called herself a “terrified optimist” and identified as a socialist. “Ideology must not devour, but illuminate art,” she told New York. “Man in disorder,” via a line from Pasqualino Settebellezze, was one of her onscreen preoccupations.
Archangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Eigg Spañol von Braueich (her full name) was born in the south of Italy to an affulent family of Swiss heritage. She got her start in film as an assistant director on Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8½. She said in her doc that she was not particularly good at her 8½ job, but Fellini overlooked that “because I was likable.” She soon transitioned to making her own movies, along the way meeting visionary production designer Enrico Job, marrying him, and hiring him to work on several of her films. By the time she was being touted as “The Most Important Film Director Since Bergman” on the cover of the February 2, 1976 issue of New York, she had gained a reputation for doing whatever it took to execute her creative vision. Simon wrote that on set, she “yells, cries, and has fits.” Wertmüller did not seem to dispute this account of her process. “I will use all available means, even violent ones,” she told New York.
As her well-connected sex worker character Salomè in Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero: stamattina alle 10, in via dei Fiori, nella nota casa di tolleranza… (Love and Anarchy) puts it, “Feelings are a luxury and this is war.” Certainly, Wertmüller’s work was incendiary. In Behind the White Glasses, Martin Scorsese describes 1974’s Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto (Swept Away) as “a provocative cultural conversation piece everywhere you went” at the time. That’s putting it politely for a film that portrayed a rich woman falling in love with her poor servant who rapes her on the secluded island in which they have found themselves marooned. Wertmüller openly disagreed with the feminist interpretation of her film, explaining that there was more to it than a simple tale of submission to an oppressor. “They are not only a man and a woman but they represent two politics: communist and capitalist. I was interested in observing what their relationship could be with no laws,” she told The Guardian. (And as Simon keenly pointed out in New York: “The woman in it is really the bourgeoisie in love with the Third World, which ends in a great mess. Actually, in a certain sense, the woman in it is really the man; and the man is the exploited—even sodomized—woman.”) Power was never a simple concept for Wertmüller. In response to a question about women surviving such a male-dominated industry, Wertmüller told euronews in 2019, “It’s not about sex, but more about the power that each of us has in the business.”
Though Wertmüller reportedly told New York that she was “with the [feminists] on 70 to 80 percent of their demands ‘to the death’,” repeatedly disavowed the feminist label. She did, however, apparently agree with writer-director Hanna Fidell’s assertion that “being able to create full female characters who might make bad decisions is an act of feminism unto itself.”
Granted, Wertmüller had fairly obtuse ideas about the admittedly messy ideologies present in what are considered her best movies. As she told the Washington Post in 1984: “I reject entirely the idea that Swept Away was an invitation to hit your wife to make love better. The mysteries of Venus are great mysteries. When I hear cats making love, I feel that they suffer atrociously. But I know that instead it’s a natural force of love.” Though Pasqualino Settebellezze is ostensibly about survival, Wertmüller saw its ultimate effect as anything but. “Pasqualino is not alive at all, he’s dead. As a man, as a human being, he’s dead,” she reflected. (She also thought the shark should have won at the end of Jaws, which… same.)
The success of Pasqualino Settebellezze and Wertmüller’s hot minute of U.S. cultural penetration (including an impersonation of her by Laraine Newman on Saturday Night Live) led to a four-movie deal with Warner Bros. But after her first movie for the studio, 1978’s A Night Full of Rain, bombed, she left the big leagues and went back to making movies as she did before. She’d be active for about 25 more years, but she never experienced the success and acclaim she did in the ‘70s. For whatever reason, that decade was especially fertile and affirming of the idiosyncratic auteur. Nonetheless, she has nothing but positive things to say about the experience in her documentary: “A flop pushes you to work harder, pushes you to analyze how you went wrong why, where. Thus, it’s more interesting than a success.”
She didn’t win the Oscar for Best Director in 1977—it went to John G. Avildsen for Rocky—but she did receive an Academy Honorary Award in 2019 as the second woman director to do so. In her speech, she dragged Isabella Rossellini (who was serving as her translator) for wearing purple and declared that she would be called her statue “Anna,” not “Oscar.”
Throughout her career, the terrified optimist remained sanguine about her status as the rare woman behind the camera. For her, it was always about the work, not the scarcity of her experience. As she told New York in 1976: “They laughed at me a long time, but when I start making a movie, they laugh a lot less.”